FOR two and a half years there has been a buzz of anticipation in the fleet sector. When the Government changed from the old mileage-based company car tax system, it announced that unless diesel cars complied with Euro IV emissions rules, they would incur a 3% supplement.
It took a year for the first Euro IV diesels to roll on to UK roads, but the last year has seen a rush to ready diesel engines for the January 1, 2006, deadline.
The buzz of anticipation was to do with minimising BIK bills, and the level of anticipation changed with each manufacturer you spoke to.
If there was a Euro IV diesel arriving sooner rather than later, then there appeared to be significant demand, while others, whose ‘cleaner’ diesels would appear in time for the deadline, had customers who were apparently less worried about the issue.
Nowhere is the issue more critical than in the executive car sector – 3% of a £35,000 car to a 40% taxpayer is rather more than 3% on a £17,000 car to a standard rate taxpayer.
In the premium sector, the new model BMW 5-series and Audi A6 ushered in Euro IV diesels, but the Mercedes-Benz E-class was developed when matters were less urgent, so it has taken until now for the 2004 Fleet News Executive Car of the Year winner to gain Euro IV diesels.
So far, Euro IV is only offered on automatic versions of the E220 CDI and the auto-only E320 CDI, although there is no price premium to pay over the previous versions of the engines. However, the reduction in nitrous oxides and particulates necessary to achieve Euro IV has resulted in an increase of 11g/km in the car’s CO2 output from 177g/km to 188g/km.
It means the ultimate saving for a 40% taxpayer in an E220 Avantgarde automatic is about £10 a month, taking account of the car being two BIK tax bands higher.
The E270 CDI does not gain Euro IV status, and with a new six-cylinder diesel in the pipeline for late 2005, it is possible that this engine will be replaced in the line-up before the end of the year.
Although it is now more than two years old, the E-class still warrants comparison alongside newer entrants in the sector.
While it might be seen as a safe choice alongside the more controversial-looking 5-series and A6, the E-class is brimming with hi-tech features.
Our E220 CDI Avantgarde test car comes with automatic climate control, automatic headlamps, lumbar support and partial electric adjustment for the front seats, automatic dimming rear-view and driver’s door mirrors, multi-function steering wheel, metallic paint, cruise control, heated windscreen wash, lowered suspension and part-leather trim.
However, its price tag still looks a little steep alongside cars like the Audi A6 2.0 TDI at £24,020 on-the-road.
Admittedly, this car has a little less power and torque, and there is no automatic offered yet. The BMW 525d SE automatic is more powerful and has a silky six-cylinder engine compared to the E220’s flat-sounding four but it isn’t as well specified as the E-class.
The Sensotronic Braking Control system is fitted as standard, and while it is said to improve braking response in an emergency, in the wet the system also gently applies the brakes every so often to dry the discs.
There are comprehensive safety features with a standard electronic stability programme (ESP), driver, passenger, side airbags and full-length window bags.
The E-class also has a roll-over sensor that can deploy the side airbags and seatbelt pre-tensioners, all of which helped it achieve five stars for occupant protection in the Euro NCAP tests.
Model: E220 CDI auto Avantgarde (Euro IV)
Price (OTR): £31,855
Engine (cc): 2,148
Max power (bhp/rpm): 150/4,200
Max torque (bhp/rpm): 251/2,000
Max speed (mph): 134
0-62mph (sec): 9.7
Fuel consumption (mpg): 39.8
CO2 emissions (g/km): 188
Transmission: 5-sp auto
Service interval (miles): Variable
CAP RV (36/60,000): £12,875/41%
HSBC contract hire rate: £591
BEHIND THE WHEEL
WITH a more conventional elegance than either the BMW 5-series and the Audi A6, the Mercedes-Benz E-class doesn’t really hint at how special the interior feels from outside.
The E-class dashboard curves gently towards the centre and appears of the highest quality and is cleverly designed.
Despite efforts among some manufacturers to reduce the amount of switches by including clever controls to operate various functions via screen-based menus, the E-class’s conventional switches are tastefully arranged and don’t appear to be over-abundant.
Our test car was fitted with an optional in-dash CD autochanger and the whole movement to access this essential piece on in-car entertainment is a work of art.
A discreet button below the hazard warning light, when pressed, triggers the slow and deliberate outward and downward movement of the whole panel to reveal the CD changer.
Other neat touches include an analogue clock that is as large as the rev counter and can automatically synchronise itself to the clock in the audio system.
Cabin space is adequate – not as generous as the latest Audi A6 but it shouldn’t give rear seat passengers much cause for complaint – while boot space, at 520 litres, is excellent.
Hardly anyone would buy a manual E-class, and the five-speed automatic transmission in the new Euro IV E220 CDI is as smooth as we have come to expect from Mercedes-Benz. It slurs gearchanges so imperceptibly that you have to look at the rev counter to tell when they happen.
It’s a shame that the 2.2-litre CDI is rather noisy by modern diesel standards. It’s fine at higher speeds and reasonably muted from inside the car, but open a window or pull up close to pedestrians and the engine noise is soon noticed.
With 150bhp and 251lb-ft, this E-class has less grunt than BMW would dare offer in the diesel 5-series (177bhp and 295lb-ft is apparently the bare minimum), but it seems to move well with the flow of traffic, will cruise comfortably on the motorway and probably won’t get shown up by upstarts in diesel Ford Focuses.
It rides poor surfaces with great composure, letting the driver know the essential information through the steering wheel, but keeping passengers blissfully unaware of inferior quality roads. It doesn’t handle as sharply as the latest C-class, but is game for tackling challenging roads. The Avantgarde has lowered suspension and our test car was fitted with air suspension, with adjustable damping, a £1,240 option.
THE E-class is still a formidable proposition in the executive sector and, in many areas, a class benchmark. Now the diesel engines have been brought up to date, senior managers can choose an E-class that is kinder to the pocket as well as the environment.